God and Christ: Examining the Evidence for a Biblical Doctrine
Identifying the True God
By David Barron
The New Testament authors and Jesus Christ himself were certainly aware of God’s nature. All theological outlooks generally agree that God in the New Testament is the same God found in the Old Testament. On more than one occasion the New Testament alludes to events within the Old Testament involving God and in speaking of these events the authors identified him or distinguished him from others to show both who he was and was not.
God's nature1 can well be understood through texts that speak to his identity. Many relevant passages are commonly overlooked due to the subtlety of their points, but they are powerful when examined. These passages define the one whom the New Testament authors identified as Jehovah in both specific accounts and throughout the Old Testament generally.
Perhaps the plainest New Testament statement on God's identity is found in the first two verses of Hebrews. Speaking with direct reference to the God of the Old Testament, these implicitly define who God is, and more importantly, who he is not. Beginning with a reference to the “God that spoke to the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1), this “God” is implicitly understood to be Jehovah for it is he who spoke to the Old Testament prophets. The orthodox Trinitarian will often advance that the “God [who] spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets,” Jehovah, is the Trinity, while those who hold to Sabellianism will claim this is Jesus who is also Jehovah. What the author of Hebrews provides sharply contrasts these ideas.
Where verse one speaks of the 'God who spoke by the prophets,' verse two continues, relating how this same one has spoken more recently “in His Son.” In other words, it is the same God who spoke by the prophets in the Old Testament that has spoken in the New Testament by Jesus. Murray Harris expounds on this:
“Since the author is emphasizing the continuity of the two phases of divine speech (ό θεός λαλήσας... έλάλησεν), this reference to a Son shows that ό θεός was understood to be ‘God the Father.’ Similarly, the differentiation made between ό θεός as the one who speaks in both eras and υιός as his final means of speaking shows that in the author's mind it was not the Triune God… who spoke to the forefathers by the prophets. That is to say, for the author of Hebrews (as for all NT writers, one may suggest) ‘the God of our fathers,’ Yahweh, was no other than ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (compare Acts 2:30 and 2:33; 3:13 and 3:18; 3:25 and 3:26; note also 5:30).”2
As the Old Testament God was speaking by Jesus this one is not Jesus. If the God that did this is not Jesus, Jesus is not the Jehovah of the Old Testament or even a person of the Jehovah of the Old Testament, for it is that one who spoke by the prophets. This being true, the God of the Old Testament is not triune, but as the speaking was done in the New Testament by the Son, God can only be the Father.3
As the inspired word recorded in Hebrews defines the preceding as true we have every reason to accept it. Though standing in stark contrast to Trinitarian and Sabellian thought, it was not Jesus who spoke “by the prophets.”4
In penning his letter to the Romans Paul presented his introduction in a manner markedly similar to the opening words in Hebrews. Beginning in verse one Paul explains that he has been “set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” Paul distinguishes between the God who made these promises to whom the prophets belonged and Jesus Christ, noting that the 'promises' were “concerning his Son… Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:1-4).
Again in Hebrews the author moves beyond the generalization of God speaking through the prophets as in 1:1, now identifying a specific Old Testament event where God appeared. He relates: “Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant” (Heb. 3:5). Numbers 12:7 is alluded to when Jehovah came down from heaven, calling for Aaron and Miriam. In the account Jehovah is recorded speaking: “It is not so with My servant Moses! He is faithful in all My house.” Jehovah refers to 'his house' with Moses as the one “faithful in” it. After citing Moses as the one who was faithful in Jehovah's house, Hebrews tells that Jesus was 'faithful over his house' and in doing so he was 'faithful as a son.' For Christ to serve 'as a son over his house,' the house is implicitly his Father’s. The reference to “his house” is the same as the one Moses was faithful in. From Numbers we know the house belongs to Jehovah and from Hebrews it is apparent that this can be only the Father.5
A similar reference found in Acts 3 is with Peter speaking of God, borrowing a self-identification used by Jehovah to identify himself. Quoting Exodus 3:15, Peter identified “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (Acts 3:13). He spoke of this one’s promise to Abraham from an account in Genesis 22 (Acts 3:25). With both passages Peter identified Jesus as one other than this God. In 3:13 Peter submitted that the God described in Exodus 3:15 was the one who “has glorified His servant Jesus.” “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers,” was a reference to the Father with Jesus as his servant. Citing Genesis 22, Peter states: “It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, 'AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED'” (Acts 3:25). The 'God who appointed to their fathers' is Jehovah, the one who established the covenant with Abraham. With the next verse the apostle distinguishes this one from Jesus:
Acts 3:26 For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.
The God who spoke to Abraham in Genesis 22 is shown to be the one who raised “his servant” Jesus, a point reiterated in Acts 5:30. These passages present Jesus as one other than the God who appeared in the two Old Testament references alluded to by Peter. The God in view when the recorded events took place was the Father.6
Later in Acts the apostle Paul, while speaking at he Areopagus, identified an altar to an unknown God: “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth...” (Acts 17:23-24). Paul proclaimed the God who was his own, but did he accurately represent him?
Continuing in Acts 17 Paul presented the resurrection to his listeners, providing a key distinction: “Because He [the God spoken of in v. 23-24] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). This distinction presented was between the God whom he was proclaiming to them, 'the God who made the world and all things in it,' and Jesus Christ, whom this God raised and appointed. Paul's language represented this God as only a single person distinct from Jesus Christ. Were “the God” to whom this altar was set up, “the God that made the world and all the things in it,” Jesus, or were Jesus a person of that God, Paul would have at the very least demonstrated a misunderstanding of his God's nature by drawing this distinction.
Evidence shows that the New Testament writers and the apostles viewed the Jehovah of the Old Testament as the Father alone, for whenever they referred to specific Old Testament events the one identified as God was always the Father. Even Jesus, when speaking of whom the Jews identified as their God, identified this one as his Father: “It is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’” (John 8:54).
Having considered references to Old Testament events when the New Testament authors either alluded to specific events or referenced God through language he used when proclaiming himself to his people, another use of Old Testament texts must be considered. This other use is found when “the NT writer goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense of the OT passage to assign the passage an additional meaning in connection with its NT context.”7 When doing this the New Testament writers would take Old Testament texts out of context and apply them to new circumstances because the language was deemed appropriate for them. The Apostle Paul was one who used this method of interpretation a number of occasions, for example quoting Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:36.
Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED."
The psalm reveals a discussion of God's relationship with the nation of Israel. The psalmist sang of how God had 'cast them off and shamed them' and how he 'did not go forth with their armies' (vs. 9). They had been made 'a disgrace, a scorn and a mockery to those around them' (vs. 13). As “sheep to be slaughtered” the psalmist proclaimed, “Why do you sleep O God? Awake! Do not cast us off forever” (vs. 23).
In stark contrast to the Psalm the Apostle Paul did not view himself and his fellow Christians as 'cast off.' They could not be separated by anything from “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Replacing God and Israel as the subjects of the psalm, Paul refers to Jesus Christ and the church with his words. To Paul, Christians were being killed on Jesus' behalf as loyal servants, having acted faithful to the point of death.8
In Hebrews a number of Old Testament passages are cited, one from Isaiah 8:18. As with the above this text has been quoted out of its original context and the subjects have been changed. Commenting on this text as quoted in Hebrews 2:13 Thomas explains:
“The Isaiah passage speaks of Isaiah and his two sons. The writer of Hebrews applies the same words to Jesus, the Son of God, and His fellow human beings to show Jesus' human nature and His full identification with the human race (Heb 2:13b). In the NT sense the reference is to Jesus instead of Isaiah and to humanity instead of Isaiah's two sons.”9
Not only could references be changed but the way the words were used could be vastly altered. In the above text not only did the subject change from Isaiah to Jesus but the sense of “children” was changed so to no longer reference physical descendants.
That the New Testament authors were able to quote in this way is revealing, especially when one considers a number of Old Testament texts used as supposed Trinitarian proof texts. While we have so far considered specific references where God appeared so to identify who he was, there are a number of times when the Old Testament is quoted where the language is applied to Christ as in Hebrews 2:13 but with God as the original referent. This borrowing of language was vastly different than providing specific reference to Old Testament accounts and identities in relation to what were then modern events.
1 By nature I mean whether he exists as a Trinity, a single person with multiple modes of existence or simply the Father.
2 Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 47. Emphasis added.
3 Trinitarians often accuse Unitarians of beginning with the assumption that God is only one person, but this is far from the case. What is assumed is only that the Bible is a coherent literary work, consistent in its language. This dictates that if language is used of God so that it defines him as a single person the language should be understood as doing exactly that, just as the language would have been used for any other in such a way. This is not to say that anthropomorphic language is not used of God, but outside of this specific use there is consistency. To say otherwise creates a type of “God language” where the language used for God no longer means what the language naturally means. Such is troubling for it allows an arbitrary application of a “God language” principle where one can make the text to mean anything even if defining exactly the opposite of what is stated within the text. Rather than looking for a “God language” the better solution is to accept that the Bible authors used their own language to define God so that it would be possible for readers to understand the text. This is where Trinitarians accuse others of assuming their doctrine; the reality is that Trinitarians assume Trinitarianism in order to overcome a consistent reading of the text.
4 Brief mention should be given to Acts 28:25 where the Holy Spirit is said to be the one to have spoken by the prophets. There is only issue with this text if one assumes a contrary doctrine, but either way this is addressed by 2 Peter 1:21. If the Holy Spirit is in fact “influence coming from God” (BN, 4:2:88.) the text is entirely compatible with Hebrews 1:1. God the Father is the one who spoke by the prophets, and he did so by placing his influence upon them, his Holy Spirit. While the focus of this book is not on the Holy Spirit, it is briefly worth mentioning that while the Holy Spirit is often personified (for a few examples, see Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003], 522.), a number of passages clearly deny such personality. So Hebrews 3:1 when literally translated speaks of “distributions of Holy Spirit,” not gifts of the Spirit as many Bible’s incorrectly render it. In support of this is Numbers 11:17, 25 where some “of the Spirit” upon one person was divided among many. To suggest that a person, even with God, is somehow ‘distributed’ and split up among many is incoherent at best. To say that God placed a portion of his influence upon one person and then took from what he placed upon that one and divided it among many to a lesser extent, can be understood.
5 Through true that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18), the matter of concern is not how this one is the Father, though I would identify this with divine agency. Relevant here is only who this Jehovah was and the evidence shows him to be the Father.
6 While some may rebut that Jesus only became a servant when he became a man and so these texts are addressing Jesus in his humanity, such a response is insufficient because even before he became God’s servant he would not have been the one that he became the servant of. Nothing within the text implies God is polypersonal, but Peter refers to a single individual as the God in these Old Testament passages, so even prior to becoming his servant he still would not have been that one or a person of that one.
7 Robert L. Thomas, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” TMSJ 13/1 (Spring 2002), 79.
8 Similarly, see Ephesians 4:8 and Psalm 68:18.
9 Thomas, 83.